GARETH Southgate should get his tin hat on quickly because after the beginning of what will be three days of exclusive head-to-head interviews with Uncle Eric in the Gazette (here’s part two) he can expect a lot of incoming high-explosive.
Given the bi-polar nature of public opinion on the Boro ‘street’ any utterance is merely the prelude to the same old arguments being chased angrily down the same old cul de sacs and the same irate people become increasingly frustrated because their own favoured crescendo to the debate is not on the agenda.
For some Southgate soberly assessing where last season went horribly wrong – the hasty exit of Luke Young, the departures of Cattermole and Boeteng without new faces coming in to replace them, Alves failing to ignite, the slow motion slide towards relegation and the effect of key players wanting away in January – is a good thing. Recognition and acknowledging mistakes is a key step in preventing them being repeated and doing it in public helps show that the club are willing to take responsibility for relegation.
But for others – many others – the interview will be seen as a provocation, a brass-necked public picking at barely healed scabs and a premature attempt to play the popular politicians’ card of ‘drawing a line under it.’ For them because heads have not rolled – an assistant in the BBC and a masseuse or two hardly constitute a full blooded Night of the Long Knives – the architects of the downfall have escaped responsibility.
Last week there was much talk of opinions without accountability and for the harshest critics such interviews are objects lessons in just that. The conclusion will be drawn that if Southgate is putting his hand up to the mistakes that led to relegation (and he bravely moves away from the collective mantra that was the soundtrack to the summer to take personal culpability on many issues) then he should carry the can.
Southgate was very open and never ducked a question. The answers may not be what people want to hear – and let’s be honest, some people want a full scale public rigourous Maoist self criticism session combined with the medieval self-flagelation of a wretched sinner, preferably with the sound of a gallows being knocked up in the background – but that is always the case: beauty is in the ear of the beholder.
In covering all the bases and admitting mistakes – Cattermole, Young, Alves – the gaffer is simply pointing out a selection of sticks to be used to beat him with. Knowing that yet going ahead with the interview (two hours in the Hurworth canteen) shows real steel and willingness to front up and take responsibility… which brings us back to the notion of “opinions without accountability.”
In his weekly Gazette growl today an affronted Bernie Slaven tackled head-on some of the issues pointed to by Southgate in last week’s rage at the machine. The gaffer had pointed to the rumblings from radio phone-ins and inescapable cyber soap box of internet message boards as contributing directly to the negativity in the ground and the booing that piled pressure on a young team that, after all, very much in the shake-up.
Bernie was naturally fighting his own corner – his job on the Three Legends is to facilitate just the kind of populist hue and cry that Southgate has suggested helps if not create, then certainly perpetuate the white noise of dissent – and made a string of good points in a sterling “we’re no living in Russia” ‘free speech’ defence of his role.
“When I hear Gareth Southgate having a pop at the fans in the national press and talking about supporters who boo the players and who criticise them on phone-ins and internet message boards as being “opinions without accountability” I take offence at that. I take offence because I work for the biggest phone-in show in the region and that means whether he meant to or not he is having a pop at me, my colleagues and my callers.
“But I take offence speaking as a Boro fan too because when you are talking about “accountability” then what fans want to know is who is taking accountability for relegation, for being the lowest scorers in Britain and for a string of players like Alves who cost a fortune but who were disasters?
“Fans don’t boo for fun. They aren’t being unreasonable after one bad game. The booing is because year on year the team has got worse, results at home have been terrible, we’ve slipped back from Eindhoven to the Championship and performances have been rank bad along the way. Fans have every right to an opinion on that! For me anyone in football who points the finger at the supporters is trying to hide from their own responsibility. Fans don’t lose games, they don’t pick the team or make the substitutions.
It is hard to disagree with any of that. And to be fair I don’t think Southgate would disagree with the rights of fans to express an opinion. What he did say though was expressing it had consequences, in this case possibly demotivating a young, recently reassembled team that were trying hard and are overall in a good position.
And Bernie himself admitted that the booing was a double edged sword.
” I know that as a player if you are booed as you come off after a game where you have really tried hard but it hasn’t quite gone right that you do resent it and you do talk in the dressing room. You do! Some like me get fired up and think “stuff you” and go and score in the next game to prove a point but others let it get to them and heads go down of they can stop busting a gut.
Perhaps the most pertinent point the Glaswegian fence climber made was about how the upsurge in populist opinion – radio and TV phone-ins, e-mails being read out live, internet forums and, yes, blogs too – was partly down to the way clubs have gradually tried to take control of the free flow of information.
Clubs have launched their own magazines, TV stations and websites as potential revenue streams and see themselves increasingly as rivals to the traditional media, while collectively they become far more strident in protecting their product and copyright. At the same time players have become media savvy and know they too are a product and that they should control their own image rights where possible. As a result much that is in the media has a sanitised “official” stamp on it.
So maybe it is no surprise that passionate fans have tried to reassert their cultural control of the game’s soul by expressing forthright opinions on every platform possible – especially when they see their own role denigrated, sidelined or insulted. As Bernie said:
“It really gets my goat when football clubs – all football clubs, not just Boro – try to control people’s opinions. And they do want to control opinions. They can control what is written in the programme, when and where you talk to players, who is allowed to broadcast from the ground. They can try to manipulate what is in the press or on TV.
“But they can’t control the fans’ opinions and every time they even try it is a slap in the face for the people who care most. If there is one sure way to rile fans it is to tell them they are wrong to express an opinion. Our switchboard nearly went into melt down when Steve McClaren said Boro fans needed to be educated and when Keith Lamb said the club didn’t care about season ticket holders and preferred match by match fans.
Now Gareth is telling the fans not to boo the players!”
And Bernie also points out that people are far more informed about the game than ever before. That is undoubtedly true. When I was a kid foreign players never entered my consciousness until the few weeks of the World Cup forced them in via TV and Panini sticker books, and even then you knew so little of their capabilities. Now my boy, 10, has a mental list of continental superstars, knows what positions they play, what their relatives strengths are and their inside leg measurement all through playing endless hour of Football Manager, FIFA and ProEvo.
The internet, wall to wall TV coverage from the G14 Brand Fest of the Champions League down to the Conference, YouTube, endless acres of newsprint all make the game as comprehensively covered as an any area of human endeavour in history. Fans still have the same basic spectrum of emotions and perspectives – but now they have far more information to back them up when it comes to justifying them…. and far more outlets should they be inclined to evangelise. As Bernie said:
“Look, I know there are blokes out there who can’t even spell ‘football’ and taking stick off people like that really hurts. But there are a lot of fans who have watched the game for years and are very knowledgeable. There is football so much on TV, on the internet and computer games. Fans are more informed than ever.
“And yes, there are more outlets now for their opinions, the Legends is one, the internet is another… but that’s healthy. For me it actually takes pressure off the players because it helps fans get their frustrations out in a good way. In my day fans worked nine to five all week and stored up their frustrations and really let rip at their team on Saturday.”
Where I do disagree is his insistence that every opinion is equal, that all should be given the same air-time and all carry the same weight. In theory maybe. But it is a pseudo-democratic argument that helps to reduce the overall level of debate. Look at the comments stream on JustinTV for frightening evidence of that. And some forums are zoos. And that helps the clubs dismiss the genuine nuggets of insight and real political questions raised in such forums. Which is why I spike posts on here that are foul mouthed, hate filled and untruthful.
An ill-informed, vindictive rant peppered with insults and half-truths and regurgitate pub rambling bereft of context is easily used as evidence that fans are stupid and that by extension that the media are encouraging willful ingnorance.
Plus, and this is important, it is not as useful a contribution as shrewd insight backed by tactical, technical or historical knowledge or genuine understanding of the mechanics of the game. And that is not about elitism but a concern for the content. What makes such popular imput as yours valuable – and gives it political weight – is the selection and moderating process. But then, I would say that wouldn’t I.